Pinoy Boxing: Villa, Yes. Manny Pacquiao, No. One?
Like those that followed, like Harry Greb, Tiger Flowers, Battling Siki, and Salvador Sanchez, Pancho Villa’s life ended much too abruptly…
June, 2012, Holiday Inn Lobby
A young man approaches with a Boxing Hall of Fame red ribbon ID attached to his shirt. “Hello, I am told you are Mike Schmidt and that you write for Boxing.com. I just saw you talking to Mr. Steve Smoger and Donny Lalonde over there (across the lobby) and asked. I would like to show you a photo of my relative.” Out of the young man’s pocket, handled as if the most delicate of expensive jewelry, comes a wrinkled old black and white photo of a boxer, lean and sinewy, and looking much a great deal older than perhaps his actual years. Carlos “Cutman” Varela, standing beside me, exclaims “Wow, Schmeeet, Pancho Villa, one of the best of all time, eh?” The young man in response asks. “I am wondering if you might consider writing something about my relative.” What would one say other than yes under any circumstance and out of respect for what many consider as the greatest fighter to ever come out of the Philippines and certainly one of the best, if not the best, Flyweight Champions of all time.
With all due respect to Champion Pacquiao and the legendary “Flash” Elorde, this 5-foot-1-inch dynamo with the bowling ball shaped shoulders, Francisco Guilledo, aka “Pancho Villa,” described as a mix from Dempsey to Henry Armstrong, surely rates as the very best of a long list of great Filipino fighters.
At the time of his unfortunate death at the age of 23 Villa had amassed a record of 80-5-4. Various sources put his record at over 108 fights. Unlike many of those to follow after him, including Manny, young Villa was never stopped in his career. This was an astounding accomplishment when one considers the number of fights Villa had over such a short period of time. Old black and white footage of Villa, at the apex of his career, winning the Flyweight title over the legendary Jimmy Wilde (132-3-1 at the time) shows an in-and-out fighter with panther-like reflexes, indefatigable, as he uses a nonstop whirlwind attack of body shots and big left hooks, pounding the Champion into unconsciousness during the glory days of boxing with 40,000 spectators at the Polo Grounds in New York.
Villa, originally from the Negros, Occidental area, had already established himself as somewhat of a local phenom, wielding raw and natural talent and flattening bigger and older foes by the time he was contracted with sometime gold prospector, roustabout, carny man and boxing impresario Frank Churchill. Within two years of turning pro under Churchill’s guidance Villa would amass an incredible 55 fights often giving away upwards of 20 pounds against his opponents. By the time of his tragic death, Villa’s crowd pleasing style would be witnessed in fistic hot spots from Boston, New York, Baltimore to Detroit and San Francisco. Have fist, will travel!!!!
Such was Villa’s talent that he was matched in his U.S. debut against tough Abe Attell Goldstein in Jersey City. Although the fight was ruled a non-decision, local scribes had Villa clearly winning a “newspaper decision.” Villa would shortly thereafter go on to win the “American Flyweight Championship.” In attendance ringside was the legendary writer Damon Runyon who proclaimed “It’s about time we had a flyweight good enough to give Jimmy Wilde a show. I think this Filipino is just the guy to do it.” In fact Villa was just the man.
Wilde, at age 31, while on the backside of a Hall of Fame career, was still a formidable force and reigning champion. On June 18, 1923, fans witnessed that type of raw unbridled attack that is forever remembered years gone forward in boxing discussions from bars to roundtables where Villa engraved his name into a Future Hall of Fame entry, moving in and out behind a solid jab, both hands piston pumping to the body and head, pounding a fellow Hall of Famer to be. The end easily could have come by corner stoppage in the sixth round, such was the beating. In the seventh round, Villa, again working down and up, body to head, landed a long large left hook followed by a compact chopping right hand. Wilde fell to the canvas, face first, as if shot. A new champion, never to lose his title in the ring, was crowned. Within two years after the Wilde fight, Villa would engage in another 25 fights; such were his physical attributes.
On July 4th, 1925, Villa was matched with another future Hall of Famer, Irish Jimmy McLarnin. Leading up to the fight Villa had suffered continuing pain due to a tooth infection. On the morning of the fight he had the tooth removed. Against medical advice Villa went through with the fight and by all accounts was not himself in terms of speed, power or stamina. Villa spent a great deal of the fight using his one hand to constantly protect one side of his jaw. Although he lost the fight he did not lose his title as McLarnin had come in over weight. Photos at the end of the fight show the young Filipino legend, with the broad shoulders turning to his corner as McLarnin and his fans, many in newsboy hats of the day, raising their fists in victory. It would be the last scene of Villa in the squared circle. Despite the dentist’s advice that he enter the hospital, Villa spent another week without further treatment. The infection, and further complication of blood poisoning, had spread to his throat, resulting in Ludwig’s angina, a connective tissue infection often related to dental infections. Villa was rushed into surgery but passed away the following day, 17 days short of his 24th birthday.
Ring Magazine voted Villa the 59th best fighter on a list of “80 best fighters of the last 80 years” in 2002. He was also voted as the number one flyweight, along with the magician that was, Miguel Canto, by the Associated Press. Like those that followed, like Harry Greb, Tiger Flowers, Battling Siki, and Salvador Sanchez, Villa’s life ended much too abruptly. One is left only to wonder what his overall career would have otherwise been. It is certain that Manny Pacquiao will not be voted the best welterweight of all time on a majority of anyone’s all-time list. That rank belongs to Sugar Ray Robinson by any person’s reasonable consideration. It is almost certain that the same could be said of Manny after careful consideration of other weight divisions. Villa, never knocked out, ranked as the very best in his weight, most certainly can be considered the best of a long list of great fighters from the Philippines. As the first ever Pinoy World Boxing Champion he of course holds special status
There are certain fighters—recently Brandon Rios comes to mind—by way of their raw unbridled love of gladiatorial-like battle that can be considered as fighters that would exist near or top of their class in any era. They are fighters by their style, a Molotov cocktail-like mix of natural unrivaled thought of mayhem, refined in the gym and by in-the-ring wars, honed to destructive skill that would hold their own against any. They are men’s men as the saying goes. Villa, the young man was that naturally gifted fighter, the number one fighter from the Philippines. Yes!!